When I decided to try a vegan diet in an effort to become king of my local climb, the first thing I noticed was how everyone obsessed about protein. This was something I never experienced in the meat eating world.
In fact one of the first things I did was to urgently track down a big plastic tub of protein powder to make sure I didn’t drop dead half way up the mountain.
6 months later the 25 serving tub is nearly empty and won’t be replaced. Although I ride 30-60km a day I don’t always take my protein fix and honestly I don’t feel any difference between the days I do and the days I skip.
So I decided to take a closer look at the need for plant based athletes to take Protein supplements, especially as I had visions of funding this website by selling protein powders.
Four Things that Persuaded me I didn't need to take protein supplements
The first thing that struck me was that the people who shouted loudest about plant based athletes needing to take supplements all sold supplements.
The people who suggested you don’t need them tended to be successful elite athletes and ultra athletes.
So the choice seems to be between trusting commercial interests and trusting your peers!
The next thing I noticed was that most of the world largest and most powerful animals are herbivores and they don’t take supplements or suffer from protein deficiencies.
Then I read the Clean Label Project reviews of vegan protein powders and discovered that not only are they super expensive, but many of them seem to be pretty unhealthy, the opposite of what I was trying to achieve.
Finally I read T. Colin Campbells books The China Study and Whole and made up my mind that protein supplements are definitely NOT for me.
A balanced plant based diet will easily give you enough protein
I’m convinced that eating a balanced and varied whole food diet with the correct calorific intake will ensure any athlete will get all nutrients they need, including the essential amino acids. And yes that does include BCAA.
You’ll get enough Carbohydrates, Fat and Protein and your body will make sure they are absorbed in the right proportions.
You don’t need to worry about eating all the essential amino acids in the same meal so long as you eat them all in the same day. Again this is all controlled perfectly by your body.
While protein is critical in building muscle mass and repairing muscle damage, more is not necessarily better. Around 23 g per sitting is a sensible maximum. More than that is just washed out as expensive urine.
If you eat the right combination of carbs, fat and protein you’ll end up using less protein for energy than competitors who consume a higher protein diet.
This is because by consuming more of one macro nutrient you obviously consume less of another for a given amount of calories. And if your body runs out of carbs it may start to break down proteins for energy rather than for building and maintaining lean body mass.
Plant protein is slightly less bio available than animal protein so you may need to consume a little more for the same effect, but this should still be achievable given a well balanced diet.
Protein powders and supplements are great for convenience, but in my opinion they really aren’t necessary, even for elite athletic performance.